The Cornelia Street Cafe: This one really hurts

Robin Hirsch, longtime owner of the Cornelia St. Café. Since 2012, the cafe has had its own label of pinot noir and chardonnay.  Photo by Dusica Sue Malesevic

BY MICHELE HERMAN | I got one of the landlords of the Cornelia Street Cafe on the phone this morning, but as soon as I said my name and “The Villager,” a gruff voice said “no comment” and hung up. So that leaves me to tell the sad story of the cafe’s imminent closing through the eyes of owner Robin Hirsch.

If you’ve been to a poetry reading or concert in the skinny basement room, you may remember the oft-repeated credo of this charming British-German-Jewish expat with former lives in theater and academia, and one of the cafe’s three founders: We support the arts by making frequent trips to the bar. Calvin Trillin once immortalized Hirsch this way: It took a Brit to reinvent the Village.

Cornelia Street, a cozy, rambling restaurant and performance space with cheery red and white décor, exposed brick, a moderately priced menu and a vast assortment of wines, has announced its closing on Jan. 2 after more than 40 years of business, many expansions and awards for food, wine and culture. There is still a slim chance of saving it, but the details aren’t being made public and Hirsch is not hopeful.

And what has brought about the demise of this latest beloved, still bustling local business? The usual, according to Hirsch: “It’s about the rent.”

When the cafe opened in 1977, about half its current size, the rent was an affordable $450. Over the years, the building changed hands a few times. The landlords were local people who asked for moderate rent increases. Notably, the lawyer son of the longtime plumber-turned-landlord came up with the equivalent of a 30-year lease for Cornelia Street.

“It was very fair,” Hirsch recalled, “tied to the consumer price index, and it carried us through very handily.”

The cafe had two opportunities to buy the building. The first time, Hirsch and his then-partners, a pair of artists, couldn’t come up with the down payment. The next time, Hirsch recalled, “We gathered the money, but by the time we were ready, the owner sold it to someone else, who flipped it and made a huge profit.”

Over the years, the cafe took over the two adjoining spaces. But when Eugene McCarthy came to read his poems early on, there wasn’t enough room. So they famously cleaned out 50 years’ worth of accumulated junk in the basement and turned it into arguably the city’s narrowest performance space, referred to as “the Downstairs.”

“I arrived in the U.S. in 1967,” Hirsch explained, “and McCarthy was a heroic figure for me. That was an incredible night. Every word sailed out and came back home.”

A painting of the Cornelia St. Cafe by Stephen Magsig.

The current landlords, Beach Lane Management, own a lot of property in the city but are headquartered in Westchester. Rent negotiations have been quite different from those with the local plumber: Cornelia asked for a 10-year extension with a 15% rent increase; the landlord offered a 5-year extension and a 50% increase.

The next time the lease was up, the cafe caught a break because of residual effects of the 2008 recession. But Hirsch ended up putting most of his family’s life savings into keeping the place going.

“My incredibly supportive wife finally said, we can’t do this anymore,” he said.

“Do you know the joke about how to make a million dollars in the restaurant business?” he asked. “Start with 10 million.”

The ins and outs of the ensuing negotiations are too complex to detail. Suffice it to say there was a court case, which Cornelia Street won, but the relentless march of rent increases took its toll. Hirsch regrets not having found a way to stabilize the place earlier.

Though he’s exhausted dealing with the costs, he still has plenty of juice for the shows.

“Last night we had Russian poetry,” he told me, “and before that, Swedish jazz singers, and the Lazour Brothers.”

When I asked about the Brothers, he told me excitedly that they will be the next Simon and Garfunkel.

Not long ago, Hirsch got official 501c3 nonprofit status for the Downstairs, which has quite a following.

“David Amram [the musician] wrote to say, ‘I will follow you and we will do Cornelia Street in exile,’” he reported.

One question much on the mind of Villagers watching the recent loss of so many well-loved local anchors (Tortilla Flats, Amy’s Bread, Gourmet Garage, the Integral Yoga health food store): Does the blame lie mostly with normal market fluctuations, with a changing economy battered by technology, with onerous regulations, or is it really just about greedy landlords?

I googled the cafe’s landlords. The guy who hung up on me before I had a chance to say why I was calling? He’s on a New York Press list of “50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers.” His partner? A disbarred lawyer who has done time in Rikers.

To read The Villager’s past in-depth coverage on the Cornelia St. Cafe, please click here and here.

2 Responses to The Cornelia Street Cafe: This one really hurts

  1. Minimum wage increases, commercial real state taxes , sick leave , 2 weeks vacation , all these new requirements mean a lot of extra money for business owners, but hey politicians love to give away others money to perpetuate in power. Feel sad for the loss of a landmark cafe.

  2. As someone who has family in the real estate business, it's not ALWAYS greedy landlords. I wish there would be more fact checking by the writer of these stories into the number of tenants that are rent stabilized and what they are paying, as well as the capital invested to improve the building by the owners, along with the required maintenance. Least not forget the most important thing, tenants think they are being squeezed, but the taxes increase sometimes two fold every time the building changes hands. The cost to try and fight these increases with lawyers on your side is upward of $50k. It has to make sense on a balance sheet to hold the property but typically there is such an IMBALANCE that it becomes too expensive for local families to maintain ownership,

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